Feb 22, 2021
The musician and author’s second novel, about a young person’s search for their vanished father, is beautifully descriptive, if occasionally clumsy
Writer and musician Kerry Andrew’s second novel, Skin, is an atmospheric creation. It follows young Matty, an introverted kid from north London, whose father disappears one day. Matty is convinced that he’s killed himself, drowned or been murdered. However, there are no answers from Matty’s brittle mother, Rosa, or from the wider community, and Matty seeks solace – and clues – in Hampstead’s swimming ponds. Throughout the novel, water functions as an ever-shifting symbol: a place to belong, a space for freedom and play, a death-lure full of secrets, a comfort and a challenge: “It began to have its own call. Water has a song, a near-silent lilt. When you got closer – tarn, pool, river, proper swimming lake – the impatience made you sweat.” Skin stirs with references to water myths, from selkies and mermaids to sirens and cursed bodies of water.
The unease of identity is another strong theme: Matty’s Italian mother and Irish father find comfort and conflict in their homelands, caught by the ties that bind and those that anchor, creating an unresolved restlessness that they pass on to Matty. Meanwhile, Matty’s explorations of sexuality, gender expression and identity glimmer suggestively through the entire novel. Continue reading...
Feb 08, 2021
The city’s 20th-century history is refracted through the mysterious occupants of a cursed tenement building in Fagan’s richly claustrophobic novel
Jenni Fagan’s third novel is a ripely imagined history, spanning 90 years of life in an Edinburgh tenement building, 10 Luckenbooth Close. This structure enables the careful stacking of characters, political eras and social contexts, floor by floor and decade by decade, from 1910 to 1999. The novel unfolds like a set of dark short stories, with a different character narrating or guiding each one. But there’s a twist: Luckenbooth is not just haunted by the realities of time and history, but also by the strong musk of the gothic imagination.
The opening scenes comprise a portentous origins story, in which a young woman rows ashore in a coffin, arrives in Luckenbooth Close and is used as a surrogate by a wealthy couple. According to this traumatised and painfully self-hating founding character, her late father is the devil and she herself carries a diabolical curse, which goes on to permeate the lives of all subsequent residents of the building for the next century. Continue reading...
Sep 06, 2020
Although this ‘menopause memoir’ doesn’t break new ground, it is still vital reading
With its intimate tone, honesty and humour, The Shift sits comfortably within the “menopause memoir” genre. Baker divulges her midlife biological embarrassments and steadily softballs the book’s ultimate journey, away from shock and self-pity towards focus, harnessed anger and recalibration.
It covers well-worn but still necessary territory, starting from the early signs of the menopause, midlife weight gain and appearance changes: “Honest to God it was as if the fat fairies had come during the night and coated me with an extra layer of insulation.” Continue reading...
Mar 29, 2020
The western novel is seen through fresh eyes in this tale of two orphans struggling to survive
Sure to be the boldest debut of the year, How Much of These Hills Is Gold by American writer C Pam Zhang grapples with the legend of the wild west and mines brilliant new gems from a well-worn setting. Its protagonists are neither cocky white cowboys nor Native Americans but two destitute children of Chinese descent, struggling to survive after the deaths of their impoverished parents. The novel begins as a quest as they try to find the means to bury their father, but extends into an excavation of their family history as well as an account of their development as growing adolescents.
The story is heavy with layers of trauma, starting with the grim humour of the children, Lucy and Sam, dragging around their own father’s rotting corpse. It is a stirring setting in which nothing is ever truly safe or comfortable, not even the plain air, which is so hot it “shivers, as if trying to lift off”. Alongside Sam and Lucy’s family story are the stories of the genocide and persecution of Native Americans, the colonisation of the west and the compulsive exploitation of the land by desperate settlers and greedy opportunists. It is a world so physically and morally rough that the young protagonists fetishise tiny details that represent beauty and purity, such as when Lucy notices a girl whose “embroidered white dress… puffs from her tiny waist”. Continue reading...